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Guest Column--Memorial Day Thoughts

In 2006, for Memorial Day’s e-Pistle, I shared an essay from the Rev. William Shand, Rector of St. Francis Episcopal Church in Potomac, Maryland. I got to know Billy, as he is called, when I was served there two years as a seminarian.

The essay is, I promise, worth reading in its entirety, but if you’re not able right now to do so, I hope you’ll at least scroll down to the bolded paragraph, and take those words to heart this weekend.

His essay:

“In the body politic, one occasionally hears a specific criticism of the Iraq war that argues that the American people have not been asked to make any sacrifice in this conflict.

“Without weighing the merits of the nation’s policy on Iraq, I wonder if this criticism is not misguided, probably aimed at the administration for political gain. For is it not so that the casualty rate in this war now numbers in the thousands? I wonder, too, if the brave souls in rehabilitation over at Walter Reed believe no sacrifice has been made by the American people.

“To be sure, life on the home front has proceeded pretty much as usual. There is an obvious contrast between this war, and, for that matter, both the Korean and Viet Nam wars ("armed conflicts", they were called) on the one hand, and on the other the great combined efforts of the home front during World War II. Is sacrifice thus a matter of returning to the days of rationing, when sugar, rubber, or gasoline -- to name a few commodities -- that would make a sacrifice obvious?

“During the War Between the States, in the northern states it was perfectly legal for a able-bodied man to hire a surrogate to take his place in the army. Theodore Roosevelt’s father did just this, and some think the son found it a shameful lesson. It was easy and legal to avoid sacrifice. But no one could think of the brave men charging across the fields at Fredericksburg or, on the other side, at Gettysburg, and say no sacrifice had been made.

“The current criticism seems to forget those who carry the heaviest load, the men and women of our armed forces. We ought to remember that ours is now an all volunteer military. To be sure, military careers have considerable rewards, but often of a different nature. Few get rich in the military; few have easy family lives; few receive the plaudits of the "beautiful people" at home. They seem to answer a different call from the one that impels many of the rest of our citizenry. Is it a sacrifice? I am not sure they see it that way, but maybe the rest of us should. And that consideration comes before any verdict about injury and death, the "last full measure of devotion" as Mr. Lincoln put it.

“During World War II, my father left his legal career to volunteer for the U. S. Marine Corps. He was determined to be part of that effort, and actually called upon some political influence not only to get in the Marines, but then to be posted to the south Pacific. (“PI”, is it is known, usually works the other way around.) In any case, many years later, it occurred to me that I had never expressed any thanks for what he had done, and I wrote him to tell him how proud and grateful I was, and remain. He wrote back to thank me for my letter, but then added without a trace of condescension that he had not done any of that to be thanked by anyone. He believed it was his duty, and that ended that. Sacrifice? You decide.

“Again, it is not my purpose here to enter the dispute about the policy of the administration over the conduct of the latest war. What I do wish to suggest, however, is that when America’s service personnel are sent in harm’s way, they represent the entire nation, and their service -- even unto death -- represents a considerable sacrifice on the part of us all. True, on the home front things may look like any other day, but please do not tell that to the mother of a son or daughter in Iraq or in a submarine patrolling the ocean’s depths or flying over this city at all hours of the day and night.

“They are our sons and daughters, and if we at home do not have to scrimp on commodities or plant Victory gardens, they represent us. That is why we pray for them.

“The origins of Memorial Day lie in dispute, but there is something common to the stories: A realization that the health of the nation depends, in part, on remembering valiant services rendered. The casualty rates in 1861-65 filled the cemeteries with the flower of American youth, and the decoration of graves began to commemorate those who rested there.

“Has this moment in the nation’s life now become nothing more than an unofficial start to summer, a time for used car sales and jam-packed highways? If the answer is yes, then maybe we need a different sacrifice -- a more concerted effort to know the history of a good and decent nation, and the valiant servants in this and every generation.”

--The Rev. William S. Shand
Rector, St. Francis Episcopal Church
Potomac, Maryland

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